Gregory Giddens had overseen large projects at the Defense and Homeland Security departments before leading VA's Enterprise Program Management Office. (Rob Curtis/Staff / Staff)
In 2010, the Veterans Affairs Department stood up a new high-level office ó called the Enterprise Program Management Office (ePMO) ó charged with beefing up the departmentís program management capabilities. To run the ambitious effort, it recruited Gregory Giddens, a member of the Senior Executive Service who had overseen numerous large programs at the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
In a recent interview with Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins, Giddens said the initiativeís success was instrumental in the departmentís ability to manage 16 priority departmental initiatives, such as improving veteran mental health, advancing health informatics, improving performance across the department, and managing new GI Bill benefits.
Your office is a fairly new one, created about four years ago to develop VAís culture of program management. What were some examples of the problems and challenges that led to the creation of the office?
When Secretary [Eric Shinseki] and his team came in, they had a clear focus on really transforming and moving the VA forward in a meaningful way. As they looked across the department, they didnít see really a current structure on how to put major programs together, and how to think about requirements. They looked at the capacity and capability and core program management as a skill set and saw that some of those pieces were missing. I think in hindsight it was very insightful of them to say that if we just launch off without trying to get some of those foundational elements in place, really the odds of us being successful at moving this organization forward is smaller, not greater.
What was lacking in terms of having a program-management structure at that time?
We didnít have a framework, for example, that helps us talk about program management at the VA. So one of the things that weíve done to help address that is the acquisition program-management framework where weíve put together a kind of a template, a guide, for program managers including the key elements that they need to think about, the key decisions that need to be made by the leadership along the process starting with good and well articulated requirements and then going through a process at decision points to make sure that weíre on the right path, that weíre making the right kind of progress, and that this is a good investment to continue to make.
What we didnít have at the VA is a set of key touch points and milestones along the programís way to bring everybody back in at the leadership level on those really key major programs to make sure that they were progressing, that they made demonstrable progress, and that we do need to continue to invest in them moving forward.
Were there some specific large kinds of enterprise projects coming up that prompted the VA leadership to get this in place?
There were. At that time, the departmentís leadership generated really 16 what was called major initiatives that they believed were going to be key toward moving the VA forward on that transformation journey. In order to do these, we needed some underpinnings of sound program management, good planning and execution capabilities, and really improving our ability to think about our requirements.
What were some results of that effort?
One is the Operational Management Review (OMR) process that was stood up, again, to bring in leadership to facilitate the success of these programs. That operational management review causes confusion at times because itís an organization within the VA. Itís also a type of meeting we have in the VA and itís also a process. So, it means a lot of different things.
So that meeting was to bring in the leadership of that major initiative, and executive sponsor, as well as the program management, and then to bring in all of the associated stakeholders across a department (IT, HR and others) because you can imagine the department is really big. So it was getting all of those stakeholders, instead of a more typical governance model, which Iíve seen.
Iíve had the great opportunity to work at headquarters as well as in the field managing programs and back and forth. Sometimes governance gets set up in a way that becomes its own end. Then itís all about the governance. Youíve got some poor PM thatís trying to work through that. They feel like theyíre running the gauntlet. What we tried to do, and I think that we did, was to set up an environment that has some oversight, but itís really focused on a facilitative approach. If this is something that the departmentís leadership that we need to move forward on, what we need to be doing is gathering ourselves up to support and assist and facilitate the program managerís success.
What level are we talking about with the OMR membership?
It is at the leadership level across the department, the people who can come in, and really help to make decisions and help to move things forward. Now we have another group that we establish in support of the operational management-review group called the transformation synchronization meeting. Its charge is really to help work all those issues that we can that really donít have to be taken to the deputy secretary for resolution. Deputy secretary has gotten more than a plate full to do. So how do we, as his executive leadership, try to work all of those issues that we can, so that when we take an issue to him, itís one that weíve looked at and not been able to resolve or work. And then, through that process, it really gets well framed out, so that when it gets in front of him, itís really in a good position to be discussed at the senior leadership then for actions and for recommendations to happen.
How important was it that, when most of the government was going through significant budget uncertainty, the VA was not really in that same situation because the VA, unlike other departments, is funded by two-year budgets? How important was that kind of predictable stable funding environment for a lot of this?
It was huge for us. It really heightened our awareness of how we have to be really good stewards of the resources that we are getting. When youíre in a town, and other people are facing budget pressures and you arenít, sometimes you become the object of your focus. So as that was going on, we were cognizant of that and said, hey, we canít be less stringent, we canít be lax on how weíre managing this. I mean, weíre in a unique, kind of blessed position where other people are facing budget pressures. Weíre not facing those kinds of pressures. I really admire the VAís position during that.
So here we are four years later. So how would you assess the program-management capability now?
We have made progress, but weíre not there yet because I think that we need to be world class in how we manage our programs. I donít say that lightly.
When you get below those kinds of really large enterprise-level projects and get down into say, a project at a regional office or a hospital in Florida, does that ďVA WayĒ really get to that level at this point, or is that something that youíre still working on?
At this point, it does not. So, I donít, to any degree, think that somebody who is running an activity in Oregon or Washington is right in line with what weíre thinking about and putting out here. Itís not inculcated all throughout the department at every level, but itís growing.■